The First Century

Women Who Led the Way

Virginia Minor (right), Early Missouri Suffragist

In a limited space, it is impossible to tell the complete story of women in Missouri politics. So many women have served in office, worked behind the scenes, raised important public issues or lobbied for key legislation that it is difficult to name them all.

A discussion of Missouri women in state politics, however, must begin with a look at those 19th-century suffragists who paved the way through their valiant efforts to win the vote. Missouri had an active suffrage movement; in 1867, the Missouri Woman Suffrage Association formed in St. Louis. A founder of the organization and its first president was Virginia Minor, who declared at an 1872 suffrage convention held in St. Louis that "the Constitution of the United States gives me every right and privilege to which every other citizen is entitled."

That October, she put her views to a test and tried to register to vote. When St. Louis County election officials turned her away, Minor and her husband, a lawyer, filed suit--and took their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1875. But the Court ruled unanimously against the Minors: Women were citizens, but not all citizens could vote, the political rights of women were controlled by their individual states. Securing the right to vote would require a constitutional amendment.

Other Missouri women carried on the suffrage fight. Phoebe Couzins, the first female graduate of Washington University School of Law in 1871, lectured on women's rights and helped found the National Woman Suffrage Association. A stirring speaker, she first appeared before the Missouri legislature in 1869 to lobby for passage of voting rights legislation. Seven years later, she spoke at the Democratic National Convention on behalf of women's rights. In 1887, she became the first woman ever named a U.S. marshal when she was appointed to the Eastern District of Missouri.

Meanwhile, other Missouri women were following the more traditional role of supporting politician-husbands. Julia Dent, a St. Louis native, married Ulysses S. Grant in 1848, and in 1869 accompanied the successful Civil War general to the White House, where he served two terms as president.

But despite the bonds of law and convention, women soon began stepping into the political arena themselves. In1890, Annie White Baxter, a Democrat from Carthage, won election from an all-male electorate as Jasper County clerk. Her victory, by 438-vote plurality, marked the first time that a Missouri woman had won public office. Her opponent filed a legal challenge, claiming that a woman could not hold office, but the courts rejected his argument--and her election stood. From 1908 to 1916, Baxter also served as register of lands for Missouri.

In June 1916, St. Louis hosted the Democratic Convention that nominated Woodrow Wilson for a second term as president. Suffragists from around the state and nation converged on the city and staged a silent protest along a 10-block route leading to the convention hall. Seven thousand strong, they waved yellow banners and wore yellow sashes or streamers; their demonstration became known as the "Golden Lane."

Helen Guthrie Miller, a Columbia resident, continued the fight in 1919 when she spoke to the Missouri Democratic Convention on women's suffrage, she was the first woman asked to speak to a Missouri political party. In 1920, the persistence of these suffragists paid off, with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution which finally granted women the right to vote. On August 31, 1920, Marie Ruoff Byrum of Hannibal became the first woman voter in the state of Missouri.

From the left: Mellcene Smith, State Representative, St. Louis 1922; Sarah Lucille Turner, State Representative, Kansas City 1922; Georgia Daniel Irvine, State Representative 1942.

In 1919, the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs was founded in St. Louis; the St. Joseph local was also founded in the same year. In coming years, the nonpartisan BPW/USA and its Missouri organization, established in 1921 in Moberly, would become an effective lobby for women's issues.

Slowly the floodgates began to open, admitting more women to the political scene. Mayme Ousley, a St. James Republican, waged a tough campaign and became Missouri s first woman mayor in 1921. In the meantime, two women-- Mellcene Smith (St. Louis) and Sarah Lucille Turner (Kansas City)--were elected to the House in 1922 for single terms. Smith sponsored 11 bills, six of which became law. Turner, a lawyer, was the first woman to serve as acting speaker of the House in 1923.

Other women moved forward. Emily Newell Blair, a Joplin native, was a well-known suffragist who served as the first woman vice president of the Democratic National Committee in 1922. Later she crisscrossed the United States, organizing Democratic women's clubs; she was also named chair of the Consumer's Advisory Board of the National Recovery Act and head of the Women's Army Corps.

The third female legislator and the first Republican to win election was Emma Knell, a funeral director from Carthage, who took office in 1924 and served for three terms. An active legislator, she co-sponsored a bill that created the Missouri Highway Patrol system and introduced another bill that required every Missouri school to fly the American flag.

In the 1930s and 40s, women with legal credentials began to take office. Springfield attorney Gladys Berger Stewart, previously a judge for the 31st circuit, served in the legislature from 1934 to 1942, where she sponsored a bill giving women the right to serve on juries. While in office, she once remarked: "There isn't any such thing as the woman's viewpoint. Intelligence doesn't have any sex." In 1966, at age 67, she was appointed Douglas County probate and ex officio magistrate judge.

Mayce Jones Maness, a Ripley County lawyer and well-known figure in state Democratic politics, succeeded her husband in the legislature for a single term beginning in 1940. Next she plunged into county politics, becoming the state's first elected female prosecuting attorney. At age 70, she took her seat as Ripley County probate judge, won election twice more to the post and retired with associate circuit status.

New parts of the state began sending women to Jefferson City. In 1942, Georgia Daniel Irvine, a Democrat, took office as the first female representative from Audrain County; she cosponsored legislation allowing civilian voters within the United States to cast absentee ballots during elections. In the same year, Mabel Aeschliman became the first Republican elected from Schuyler County since the Civil War.

Missouri women also were taking their place in national political life. In 1933, Nellie Ross, a Democrat and St. Joseph native, was appointed director of the U.S. Mint, which she headed for 20 years. When Harry S Truman became president of the United States in 1945 and won election in 1948, Bess Wallace Truman was at his side as first lady.

During the 1950s, the most exciting leap forward for Missouri women came in 1952 when Leonor Kretzer Sullivan, a St. Louis Democrat captured the third district seat in the U.S. Congress previously held by her late husband. During her 24 years in office, she became known for her support of consumer rights, especially in product labeling and meat inspection, she was the principal author of the 1968 Consumer Credit Protection Act. In the mid-1950s, Sullivan waged a five-year battle to win approval for a plan, which finally became law in 1959, to distribute government surplus foods to the needy.

Leonor Kretzer Sullivan, Third District, U.S. House, 1952

A lifelong fan of the Mississippi River, Sullivan promoted the St. Louis port, flood control projects and river safety bills. She was also the driving force behind legislation that supported construction of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial on the riverfront, and in 1983 St. Louis honored her by renaming Wharf Street the "Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard."

In state politics, the 1950s saw a record number of women--11 in 1954--running for state- wide posts. That year there was also progress on the judicial side when Margaret Young of St. Joseph, already the first woman assistant attorney general in Missouri, became the first female lawyer elected to the state judiciary; she served as Buchanan County magistrate judge from 1954 to 1974. In 1955, Marybelle Mueller of Cape Girardeau County was appointed interim magistrate judge, then won election as probate judge in 1956 and from 1974 through 1986.

Increasingly, organizations such as the League of Women Voters, founded in 1920, took strong positions on state and federal issues. In Missouri, the League would target campaign finance reform and improved voter access, routinely aiding voter registration, organizing voter information meetings and planning candidate forums. It began supporting legislation to promote energy conservation, monitor hazardous waste and preserve natural resources.

Some League members found clever ways to move along important legislation. For several years, state board member Mildred Decker of Columbia had urged passage of a bill to get the names of deceased voters off the voting roles, but she had always seen the measure die in committee. Finally, in 1951, she invited the press to attend one committee meeting, held in the wee hours of Sunday morning--and the group quickly voted to send the bill to the floor.

The American Association of University Women (AAUW), founded in Missouri in 1921, also became a vocal presence on the state level. At its 1951 state convention, for example, the AAUW went on record as urging its branches to help end segregation in public schools. Throughout the rest of the decade, women in AAUW branches across Missouri worked to support mental health and schools appropriations, revise child welfare laws and establish a Missouri law requiring equal pay for equal work.

The role of AAUW continued into the next decade, with the help of such women as Dr. Sara Feder, a University of Missouri-Columbia professor and former president of the Columbia branch, who became state legislative chair for the group in 1960. Three years later a bill, written by Dr. Feder and passed by the Missouri legislature, called for equal pay for female employees. She also served as Missouri's representative to the June 1964 Conference of Governors' Commissions on the Status of Women.

At the 1961 session of the Missouri House, a familiar figure in state politics took on a highly visible new role. Agnes I. Moore, a Democrat from Ste. Genevieve County who was elected state representative in 1956 and 1958, became the first woman named chief clerk of the House. Moore, known affectionately as "the Mother of the House," retired in 1976.

The 1962 election ushered in a new era in Missouri politics when the first African-American woman, DeVerne Lee Calloway, won a seat in the House from the 13th district. As a child in Memphis, Tennessee, she used to steal the "For Colored Only" signs that were posted around town. Much later, in the Missouri legislature, she became known as a champion of civil rights. "All my life I have been trying to take down the 'For Colored Only' signs," she said.

DeVerne Lee Calloway, right, was elected in 1962 as 13th district state representative. She was the first African-American woman to serve in the House.

During two decades in office, she was an eloquent advocate of social welfare reform, of urban areas, of state aid for public education. She helped pass legislation that made Harris-Stowe Teachers College a state college, and she served on the school's board of regents. A crusader for reproductive rights for women, she was the unsuccessful co-sponsor in 1970 of a bill designed to reform Missouri's abortion law. In 1974, she chaired a committee that uncovered inhumane living conditions for prisoners at the Missouri State Penitentiary; a resulting lawsuit led to construction of the medium-security prison at Pacific. She retired in 1982.

The 1960s also saw dramatic new changes on the national political scene. Women attending a conference on the status of women, angry at sex-based discrimination, formed the National Organization of Women (NOW) in 1966. The group said it hoped to "break through the silken curtain of prejudice and discrimination against women in government."

Each year, Missouri elections also reflected steady progress for women. In 1964, 19 ran for statewide posts. And two years later, a talented new crop of women, including Reps. Edna Eads (R-Bonne Terre), Mary Gant (D-Kansas City), Jewell Kennedy (R-Raytown), Gladys Marriott (D-Kansas City) and Dorothy Meagher (D-St. Louis) took their seats in the House.

Most had acquired their interest in politics by campaigning for other candidates, by confronting local issues or by working their way up through county committees. Gladys Marriott, for example, who became Democratic Caucus secretary and chair of the House Retirement Committee, got her start in civic affairs. Jewell Kennedy, who worked to win tax relief for the elderly and passage of a no-fault divorce law, had been politically active for ten years and had served as Republican committeewoman.

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